Imagineering problem solving: Making a big splash

John G. (NDI#194) (11 Posts)

John Gray is a curious person who is drawn to other curious people. He is a dreamer and a doer and believes that everyone and everywhere has a story waiting to be told—the trick is in how you tell it.


Tony Baxter, King of the Splash
Tony Baxter, the undisputed King of the Splash. Graphic Credit: John Gray

Disneyland had a problem. No one was going to Bear Country, the seldom visited home of the Country Bear Jamboree. No one was sitting through America Sings, the barely attended musical revue celebrating America and its past. No one knew what to do with the 114 soon to be homeless audio animatronics in the America Sings attraction designed by legendary Imagineer Marc Davis. And finally, no one was enjoying Disneyland’s refreshing log flume ride, because it didn’t exist.

Ok, Disneyland had four problems, but luckily it had one pretty clever Imagineer named Tony Baxter.

You can find the story of how Splash Mountain came to be in the book The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at its Peak by Jason Surrell, but to sum up, Tony Baxter took all of Disneyland’s problems listed above and combined them, along with that other little company problem called Song of the South, creating one of the greatest attractions Disney has ever produced. If the story is to be believed, Splash Mountain was born out of one of those great AH HA! moments—that rare instance when you realize the answer has been staring you in the face the whole time. Baxter decided what Bear Country needed was something big, something splashy, something that could be populated by about 114 audio animatronics or so. He had the realization that Disneyland didn’t have a problem at all, but instead had solutions in waiting. Some of history’s greatest problem solvers have displayed this trait, and it is one that we can all strive to emulate.

Walt Disney was a master of this type of thinking. He was able to visualize a problem from a completely unique perspective, almost removing himself entirely from any preconceived notions so that he could discover how a problem should be solved.

When Disneyland opened, a landscaper noticed that people had worn a path through the middle of his flowerbed. The landscaper’s solution was to put up a fence, but Walt saw things a little differently.

“Pave it,” Walt said.

Pave it? Seriously? The idea is to grow more flowers not to kill them all! Right? When we tackle problems in our lives we tend to choose the more difficult solutions, often overlooking very simple ones. This is because, like the landscaper, we focus on the “what” of a problem rather than the “why.”

What is the problem? People are trudging through the flowers. Solution: put up a fence to keep ’em out. Done.

For Walt, however, the problem looked very different. He did not care what the problem was, he cared why the problem existed in the first place. Early on, trying to make foot traffic flow well was a guessing game, yet in this instance guests showed them exactly where they would naturally go. Walt reasoned that if people had decided this was the best way to go, then let them go. Done.

To Walt, the problem of the path through the flowerbed wasn’t the problem at all, it was a solution in waiting, and to ignore this would be to go out of the way to make things more difficult than they needed to be. Walt Disney did not work to eliminate a problem, a reaction to something negative; instead he worked to find a solution, a discovery of something positive. This is what Imagineering is all about.

Tony Baxter took this same approach. He could have put in a play pen for dumping the kids and slashed prices on merchandise as a way to draw people into Bear Country, he could have sold off the audio animatronic components for scrap, he also could have bowed to the wishes of Disney executives and designed just another log flume ride like every other park. He could have run head-first into the problems in an attempt to eliminate them, but he didn’t. He took a step back and discovered a solution.

Think about life’s problems and how you work to resolve them. Do you ask yourself, “What is the problem?” or do you ask, “Why does this problem exist in the first place?” Don’t just treat the symptom, try to think like Walt Disney and look deeper to find the solution within the problem.

As Tony Baxter, a truly great Imagineer, sat in traffic one day on his way to work managed to channel his inner Walt and, thankfully for all of us, made a big splash.

Contributed by: John Gray (NDI#194) John is the Imagineering Blogger.

John G. (NDI#194)

John Gray is a curious person who is drawn to other curious people. He is a dreamer and a doer and believes that everyone and everywhere has a story waiting to be told—the trick is in how you tell it.

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